There’s lots to say about what the Sens have achieved this season, and I plan on saying most of it later (hopefully much later), but if you will allow me a single moment of reflection, I’d like to start by talking about this:
.@Senators are 1st team in NHL history to qualify for playoffs after sitting 14 PTS outside the postseason picture (at any point in season).
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 11, 2015
At first glance, that stat might seem a little surprising. After all, the NHL has been around for quite a few years and 14 points is only 7 wins. #Actually, 14 points might as well be from here to Mars. 14 points was the difference between playoffs in the Western Conference and the 4th overall pick last year. 14 points is a +40 goal differential. 14 points isn’t what separates the contenders from the pretenders, it’s what separates the contenders from those who shouldn’t even bother. What’s really going to blow your mind is the fact that at the time the Senators were 14 points out of the playoffs, they were 19 points back of Pittsburgh WHO THEY EVENTUALLY PASSED. I could talk about this for hours, but I guess the takeaway is this: anything is possible when you don’t lose for two full months. Ask your doctor if winning is right for you.
By far the weirdest thing about this whole “improbable run to make the playoffs” thing is the knowledge that we’ve already seen the most absurd thing the Senators are going to do this year. Where can they possibly go from here? Come back from 0-3 down to win a series? Whatever, that’s already happened 4 times in NHL history. What if they win the Cup? No big deal, someone wins the Cup every year. It’s like opening a magic act by pulling a rabbit out of a hat you’ve sawed in half while unicycling across a tightrope blindfolded: no matter how impressive it is when you pull the seven of clubs out of a volunteer’s ear later in the show, its impact is going to be slightly reduced due to what preceded it. Like it or not, you’re being graded on a curve from the moment you stick that unicycle dismount as a flock of doves flies into the rafters.
With all that being said, I plan on enjoying the hell out of whatever’s next. The phrase “house money” gets thrown around a lot these days, but all that really means is that Sens fans no longer have any right to complain. And thank God for that! Frankly, complaining was the only thing we had going for us for a while.
So pour yourself a Talisker, put the needle on your favourite Steely Dan vinyl (It’s Aja. Self-explanatory.), and take a seat. I’m here to tell you everything you need to know. Some of what I’m about to tell you may veer dangerously close to “analysis”, but just hold my hand and we will get through this. Together.
In the (United in) Red Corner: The Ottawa Senators
It took about 60 games, two coaches, and some injuries that were not blessings in disguise so much as blessings in a broken pair of Groucho Marx novelty glasses, but the Ottawa Senators finally know who they are and what they are doing. To wit:
Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris have become such strong two-way 1st liners that it’s starting to raise serious questions about whether or not Randy Carlyle and Dave Tippet know what they’re talking about. But like I always say: one man’s entitled high draft pick is another man’s backbone of the team for years to come. (Related: I can haz Taylor Hall? Call me, Edmonton!) In other news, Mark Stone simply does whatever the hell he wants regardless of what the other team has to say about it.
It’s no secret that Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Bobby Ryan, and Milan Michalek have been inconsistent this year. Lately Mike Hoffman’s been spending time exploring his dual nature as The Only Team-Leading Scorer Who Regularly Spends Time on the 4th Line™ and Emergency 2nd Line Nitrous Boost. Mika Zibanejad had two huge slumps at the beginning and the end of the year, but outside of the first and last 10 games of the season, Mika had 41 points in 61 games. Also he’s turning 22 on Saturday, so put down that mixing board and please buy DJ Z-BAD a goal for his birthday. If you can, also pick one up for Bobby Ryan who has scored on only 1 of his last 58 shots. This is a trend that I will generously describe as “outside Bobby’s established pattern of behaviour”. If he’d scored on a career average 12.9% of his shots this year instead of just 8.1%, he’d have 28 goals, 64 points, and we’d be talking about what a great Bobby Ryan Year Bobby Ryan just had instead of pondering how important having non-injured hands is to the act of shooting the puck. Sens fans to Bobby Ryan: There’s no “I” in “team”, but there’s a “U” in “slump”. Milan Michalek started slow but was really starting to cook before becoming the first player in NHL history to have an upper body injury in his knee. It looks like he’ll be back in time for Game 1, but who knows how long it will take him to get back to where he was. Basically as we go into this series, Ottawa’s second line is like a box of chocolates: they’re an unimaginative and lazy gift for people you don’t really care about that much. The good news is that even if the offense isn’t there, the 2nd line generally doesn’t get rolled possession-wise and can be trusted in all situations so it could be worse! *Hands out T-shirts with “The 2nd Line: Even when they’re bad they’re ok!” written on them*
Erik Condra, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Curtis Lazar have been the Sens’ best possession forwards for the past month. They are the greatest thing since cats’ pajamas made out of sliced bread. Fun bar game: between Condra, Pageau, and Lazar, which one do you want to adopt, which one do want your parents to adopt as your new brother, and which one do you want to time travel into the past to become your father while saving your mother from a homicidal robot? Discuss among yourselves. You’ll be there for hours. (Lazar son, Condra brother, Pageau dad btw.)
Zack Smith, David Legwand, and Alex Chiasson make up The All Disappointment Line. David Legwand wasn’t brought in to be a 4th liner, Alex Chiasson might not even be here after this summer, and Zack Smith’s new scruffy look can’t hold a candle to what Mike Hoffman’s got going on these days. However, if I may unsheathe this old #ACTUALLY that has been passed down in my family for generations, I’d like to make an observation: as much as Sens fans were expecting and hoping for more out of Legwand and Chiasson, 27 and 26 points is #ACTUALLY fairly decent production for a couple of 4th liners. Although Zack Smith may not have a long term spot on this team, he still looks like an NHL player, unlike some other Neils I could Greening. To recap: the Sens’ 4th line centre is the same guy who led the Red Wings in points last year, and not, for instance, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jacob De La Rose, or Brandon Prust. This ok with me. (More on that in a minute.)
In terms of defense pairings Karlsson and Methot will drive the play, Gryba and Borowiecki will drive me to drink, and Ceci and Wiercioch will take care of the rest. Nothing new there. There have been rumblings on The Twitters that Erik Karlsson is playing hurt. Given that he hasn’t practiced in quite some time, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he’s a bit banged up, and by “banged up” I mean “still playing 30 minutes a night”. How hurt is he really? No idea1, but you gotta hear both sides. (Unlikely, given that playoff injury information is more closely guarded than nuclear launch codes.) On the other hand, the last time Ottawa played Montreal in the playoffs EK absolutely ran show against the Habs (5GP, 6P, +5) on one leg. This time around, I’m going to say Karlsson’s going to be in even better shape on account of not having had surgery in the past two months.
Much could be made of Ottawa’s decision to continue to start rookie Andrew Hammond, but I can’t say I’m that worried about it. Hammond’s already been starting some big games over the past 2 months, and the pressure has formed him into a giant burger shaped diamond. Even if he finally crashes back to earth, the Sens will turn to Veteran Good Goaltender Craig Anderson, and that will be that. Also, Robin Lehner is a goaltending prospect with the Ottawa Senators organization.
Ok, enough about the Ottawa Senators. What about the team about which I don’t know what I’m talking?
Know Thine Enemy: The Montreal Canadiens
Hot take: Some of the players on the Montreal Canadiens are good. Max Pacioretty gets a lot of shots, a lot of goals, and a lot of points. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov combined for 110 points this year. Brendan Gallagher put up 47 points this year, has been Montreal’s best possession forward since December, and he’s only 22. Tomas Plekanec looks like Bobby Bottleservice. Carey Price has been en fuego for the past two seasons, will certainly win the Vezina Trophy this year, and should probably win the Hart. I think Ottawa’s going to have their hands full with Montreal’s top 6 and the Subban-Markov pairing, just has been the case for everyone else all year.
Luckily, the rest of Montreal’s team borders on disappointing. Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin have been getting crushed during 5-on-5 play. PA Parenteau and Devante Smith-Pelly were supposed to be the missing pieces that pushed the Habs over the top, but they can’t even touch David Legwand or Chris Neil numbers. Speaking of “David Legwand numbers”, guess what Lars Eller has! Dale Weise is tied for 4th on the team with a +/- of +21, but is rocking a cool 105.3% PDO and also looks like Ori from The Hobbit. Once you get past Montreal’s top 8 or 9 players, there’s a long list of guys that make you go “Oh, we can definitely beat THOSE guys”. Speaking of segues, did you know Sergei Gonchar is on Montreal now? If you hold your ear up to his contract, you can hear The Circle of Life playing.
In conclusion, the Habs, while not unformidable, are precisely two lines deep, and Max Pacioretty’s recent head injury will only further exacerbate that problem if he can’t fake a doctor’s note between now and puck drop. Division winner? More like DERISION winner!2
Pithy Observations of Questionable Importance
Ottawa’s depth is their biggest advantage in this series and there are lots of ways for Dave Cameron to exploit this fact. He could sacrifice Lazar-Condra-Pageau to the Habs’ top line to free up other matchups, or he could just roll 4 lines and dare Michel Therrien to try to keep up. Either way, I don’t expect Montreal to dominate play for long stretches of time.
The wild card here is, of course, Carey Price. Now I realize I just spent 1700 words to get to the revolutionary analysis of “goaltending is important”, but seriously: if Carey Price stands on his head, it won’t matter how bad Bryan Flynn is. In fact, that’s how we got here to begin with.
The good news is that even if Carey Price does Carey Price things, I don’t expect the Senators to panic. The one lesson they’ve learned over the past two months is that when they trust the system, good things happen. They’ve won every which way to get into the playoffs. They’ve won from 3 goals behind, they’ve won in a shootout from 4 goals ahead, they’ve gone on the road and played “perfect road games”, and they’ve blown out teams at home. They’ve seen it all, and I don’t expect them to panic just because someone tells them that now the games matter even more. Winning tends to instill confidence, and this is a good time of year to be confident.
And now A Serious Thing:
With the tragic passing of Mark Reeds today, life that happens off the ice (i.e. most of it) has been thrown into sharp relief. Over and over, Bryan Murray has talked about what a tight knit group of players the Senators are this year. It can’t be easy to process the loss of a person with whom you worked daily, a person who taught you to be better at your craft, a person who you’d seen and who’d encouraged you not 10 days ago, but goddamn if this doesn’t seem like the sort of group that’s just gonna go out there and play their hearts out for a guy that was clearly well-loved by everyone in the organization. I can’t emotionally handle more inspiring hashtags at this point, so just do the damn thing, Ottawa. #LetsWinItAll #DoItForBryan
Prediction: Sens in 6. Carey Price is a goalie, not a miracle worker. Get at me, haters!
1. Thx 4 reading.↩
2. If you would like to high five me, I will be posting up in the Rideau Centre from 1:30 to 3 PM this Saturday, April 18. Please contact the website for more details. ↩